China and the United States rarely agree. Whereas the U.S. has threatened to bomb North Korea, China considers the hermit kingdom a troublesome but worthwhile ally. The U.S. has tried to outmaneuver Chinese warships in the East and South China Seas to thwart the expansionist ambitions of East Asia’s largest country; China has launched countless cyberattacks on the U.S., which has long armed Taiwan, the Chinese province turned sovereign state. When the U.S. criticized China for abusing human rights, China rebranded the War on Terror as a way to extinguish activism and secessionism among Muslims in Xinjiang. Tibetans, who inhabit another province with a secessionist history, have many friends in the United States. It may surprise many observers of the Sino–American relations to read, then, that China and the U.S. have a mutual interests in pursuing the War on Drugs, a controversial American enterprise.
“The competition between the U.S. and China doesn’t mean there can’t be cooperation on combating opiates and opioids,” noted Jeffrey Higgins, a former supervisory special agent in the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
“China has a growing drug problem, despite its draconian drug laws. This gives China a compelling interest in collaborating with any country to combat drugs.”
The history of China and the Western world’s cooperation on and conflict over drugs began with the Opium Wars in the 1800s, when the British Empire pushed China to accept the illegal drug trade. The problems that Britain started continue today: the Chinese government has established over 500 counternarcotics guidelines and laws, more than any other country in the world, including the U.S., which itself is facing an opioid epidemic from New Hampshire to New Mexico. In 2016, the Chinese government’s seizures of synthetic drugs, such as ketamine and methamphetamine, soared by 106 percent, suggesting that whatever strategy China has pursued is failing to contain its own epidemic.
China’s difficulties have spread to the U.S. through fentanyl, an opioid painkiller 50 times stronger (and thus deadlier) than heroin. This May, the Justice Department indicted six people in Utah for purchasing fentanyl from China, where clandestine chemists can purchase the precursors necessary for its production with ease. Chinese traffickers then ship fentanyl to American customers or middlemen through arrangements made on the dark web, a subsection of the Internet hidden in overlay networks requiring unique software to access. The secrecy of this method has already hindered coordination between China and Canada, which is struggling like the US. .to battle the spread of the illegal drug trade from China through its borders.
Mike Vigil, former Chief of International Operations for the DEA, praised China’s efforts. “Much to their credit, they have included at least 134 fentanyl analogs in their controlled substances list,” he told The Diplomat in an email.
“Unfortunately, the laboratories quickly change the molecular structure of the opioids, thereby forcing China to control the new analogs. It takes eight months to a year to put them on their list of controlled substances.”
This June and under American pressure, China banned U-47700, a drug that acted as a legal alternative to fentanyl. Chinese chemists remain a step ahead of the of the Chinese government, though, devising new products faster than authorities in Beijing can respond. A vendor on AlphaBay Market, a darknet market, even felt bold enough to film his Chinese operations.
This March, DEA spokesman Rusty Payne noted that stopping the shipment of fentanyl from China to the United States remained one of the law enforcement agency’s biggest priorities. To achieve its goals, the DEA will have to improve cooperation and coordination with its Chinese counterparts.
“The DEA has been working hard behind the scenes there for the past several years to convince the Chinese that they have a serious illegal fentanyl production problem that is entering the illegal market, and to assist with sharing intelligence and working closely with the DEA’s counterparts throughout the various provinces,” a former senior DEA official who had helped supervise agreements with China told The Diplomat.
“It’s true that, historically, the working relationship between the U.S. and China in general has been strained, but, on narcotics trafficking, there have always been fairly quiet and constructive engagements.”
Higgins and Vigil concurred. “While China may not be willing to designate resources to help the U.S. fight drugs in general, the Chinese should be amenable to cooperating with the investigation and dismantlement of drug trafficking organizations that pose a threat to China,” Higgins argued.
Vigil added: “China’s efforts to curb its own opioid epidemic also help the U.S. and other countries impede the movement of illegal opioids coming from that country. China is aggressively trying to control the production of illicit opioids and is working closely with the US in the sharing of information.”
The DEA’s work with China has yielded some significant successes. Last month, the Justice Department announced the closure of AlphaBay, which it described as “the largest online ‘darknet market’” and “the largest criminal marketplace on the Internet.” Thai authorities arrested AlphaBay’s founder, Canadian Alexandre Cazes, on Washington’s behalf. The enterprising nature of American and Chinese traffickers, however, implies that China and the DEA have much more work to do.
Though the former DEA special agents whom The Diplomat interviewed seemed skeptical that recent tensions between China and the United States could torpedo their mutual interest in the War on Drugs, they highlighted several difficulties complicating the relationship.
“Much of the world’s fentanyl comes out of China, so the Chinese government did have a natural conflict of interest in stopping the flow of fentanyl to the U.S.,” observed Higgins.
The former senior DEA official, who requested anonymity, concluded: “Could it be better? Yes. Is there a growing corruption problem there? Yes.”
As China and the United States look to reach an understanding on North Korea, coordination between the world’s most populous country and the world’s most effective counternarcotics law enforcement agency could serve as a model for wider cooperation between the two even if China and the DEA encounter a few hiccups along the way. If China and the U.S. can make common cause in the War on Drugs, counterterrorism and nonproliferation may become the next steps in a rocky but valuable relationship spanning not only the Pacific Ocean but also the international community.
Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the Muslim world. His writing has appeared in AskMen, The Daily Beast, The Daily Dot, Vox, and Wired UK.